Tiger Woods isn’t the first public person to disappoint people. And he won’t be the last. We like to think we know celebrities. But we really don’t. The public persona is not the private one.
Sure, some of what we think we know about celebrities is media-created or public relations-invented. But in fairness, a lot of what we think we know is just stuff we make up on our own without any basis in fact.
We see celebrities on the big screen or on the stage or at the podium or on television or on a sports field, and we imagine what they must be like. They appear nice, so they must be. They act fun, so they must be. They play “honest” characters and so we’re ready to believe them when they pitch us insurance, automobiles, or financial instruments, and even incontinence underwear.
We want to like them. We even want to admire them. Some of us even conjure them up as role models. There’s a reason People magazine sells so many copies, after all.
A Face in the Crowd.
A college speech professor I know once told his students that avuncular, seemingly nice guy President Lyndon Baines Johnson fired a subordinate while sitting on the can. Years later, I read a Time magazine story that LBJ had indeed conducted such meetings and even dictated memos while sitting on the toilet. Who knew?
Chic, elegant and sophisticated Joan Crawford was taking a wire hanger to Christina while the rest of us thought how glamorous she was. Who knew what she was doing at home?
The reality is that you just never know what goes on behind the public mask, behind the proverbial closed doors. As the Shakespearean cliche goes, “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.” And so when we strut our stuff upon the stage, it’s an act. The private self is hidden. One of the best cinematic examples of truly monstrous duplicity is Eli Kazan’s classic, “A Face in the Crowd.”
Even though it is 52 years old, “A Face in the Crowd” remains one of my favorite movies. Drunken hayseed Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes played by Andy Griffith allows himself to be masterfully manipulated into a big star with a national populist following. But in truth, he is not the invented character he portrays. I’ve never forgotten the reaction of Lonesome’s public when he’s unmasked.
Of swordsmen and no conscience.
In sum, when it comes down to it, we don’t know public people. We only think we do. Boys will be boys or something like that. The problem occurs, though, when the “boys” want to be respected as men. The thing is, they have to act like men.
When hearing about Sen. John Ensign’s affair, a good friend reminded me about conscience-less roosters although that wasn’t the word he used. And of course, there are the inveterate swordsmen out there. Even they eventually realize that the blade has a place in its own scabbard.
A “going” Rogue’s Gallery.
Where have all our heroes gone? They haven’t gone anywhere. They weren’t heroes until we made them so. Woody Allen supposedly once said that “80 percent of success is just showing up.” Nowadays, 80 percent of being called a hero is just showing up. We ascribe the heroic to public figures who scarcely deserve merely the normal modicum of respect common courtesy and politeness requires we give to anyone.
Publicly, Bernie Madoff was thought to be an almost heroic philanthropist extraordinaire. Everyone wanted to know Bernie and to be in his circle, part of his genius fund. But in private, Bernie was ripping everyone off with the Ponzi scheme from hell.
And then who knew what ole’ Bill Clinton was doing in the Oval Office?
And then there was Governor Mark Sanford who some thought was living the righteous life. Instead, he was doing the horizontal tango in Argentina not hiking the Appalachian trail.
And of course, there was disassembling John and his not-so-secret-squeeze, Rielle?
And non-Promise-Keeping “family values” John Ensign?
And what about Rush and his penchant for Oxycodone aka “Hillbilly Heroin”?
The bottom line is not to believe the bottom lie we tell ourselves. We don’t know the public selves let alone the private ones.